THE story of an entire school that was evacuated to Frome in 1939, at the start of the Second World War, is being told in 2,000 Days, performed by local community theatre group Dramakarma at the town’s Merlin Theatre on Friday 6th and Saturday 7th October.
The 350 children, from Cooper’s Company School in Bow in the East End of London, were originally due to be evacuated to west Somerset, but through human error ended up in a small Wiltshire village, which was expecting pregnant women and babies – not several hundred adolescent boys. After three weeks of trying to make the best of it, the staff and boys were moved to Frome, where they took over recently vacated Nissan Huts vacated by Frome Grammar School. Once here and settled, the school stayed in Somerset for 2,000 days. The play follows the story of those school children from almost 85 years ago, through comic mishaps, badly matched billets and flirtation with danger.
The evacuation was arranged by Operation Pied Piper. This was the name given to the massive undertaking over the first weekend in September 1939, to move 1.5 million children from areas at risk from enemy bombing to safer places, such as Frome.
Despite the difficult situation of war and separation from home and families, the boys and staff seem to have fully integrated into Frome life, no doubt helped by the welcome they received from their hosts; one that would be long remembered after the war ended.
The school, in turn, gave back to their hosts wherever they could. According to newspaper reports, this included several productions to which townsfolk were invited free of charge. These seems to have been well received, but perhaps this is hardly surprising given that many were written by RD Wingfield, one of the evacuated schoolboys and future author of the Frost novels (later turned into a successful TV series starring David Jason). Other pupils included future actors Monty Goldberg (who found fame as Lee Montague) and Norman Cranwell.
This baton of theatrical traditional has now been picked up by Dramakarma. The company has taken and adapted many of the stories recounted in a book about the school’s experience in Frome – Coopers’ Company’s School in Frome, 1939-1945, edited by George S Perry.
Although Coopers’ Company’s School, which was founded in 1536, returned to London after the war, many evacuees never forgot how the people of Frome and surrounding villages had opened their arms to them. Regular post-war trips to the town to rekindle friendships, and the commemorative stone bench in St John’s Churchyard, bear witness to the enduring closeness that was formed during the war.
The vast majority of those on both sides – evacuees and hosts – have passed on, but when the play had its first performance in May in Rook Lane Chapel, as part of Frome History Festival, the guest of honour was Richard Beer, a Coopers’ Company’s School evacuee who was 12 when he arrived in Frome.
Dramakarma, whose previous production was The Last Matron, are rapidly carving out a niche for themselves through turning historical research into performance, bringing Frome’s history to a 21st century audience.